TWO WOMEN DANCING by Elizabeth Bartlett (Book Review)

As promised in my post of 27 Dec, here is a slightly fuller look at Elizabeth Bartlett’s Two Women Dancing.

I consider it one of the best books of poetry published in the last fifty years, yet on the first page, in the second poem, we read:

People need contemporary poetry like a hole in the head.

That depends on the poet. They certainly need these poems. We’ll come back to that later though, because the next poem is one of my favourites.
“My Five Gentlemen”

Prostitutes have clients, wives have husbands,
Poets, you will understand, have editors …

She describes the five editors whose hands she has been in, finishing up with:

Five is dead, of course. His failing health
Was a comfort to me, though not to him,
Naturally. His death removed one more market
For battered goods, and proved a welcome release.

Rest in peace, I thought (for I always think kindly
Of the gentlemen who direct me to the pages
I am to sit in). I can only hope to be recycled
And end up more useful than I would appear to be.

She frequently reminds me of Dorothy Nimmo or Sylvia Platt. Consider for example “Guitars as Women”, and “With My Body”:

With your hand, like that, he said …

and “There Is a Desert Here”:

Come, little creatures, walk on me,
Come, little worms, slide on me,
For no man ever will again.
I watched beetles and ladybirds
Long before you gathered birch twigs
To beat me in a field – in fun, of course,
And I will watch them again,
And grow old ungracefully, barefoot
And sluttish in my ways.

And she is always so human. Read “Ian, Dead of Polio” and “Farewell, Gibson Square“. Unforgettable pictures of people she has known and will never forget. Nor now shall we. “Farewell, Gibson Square”, for instance, is dedicated to Dr Susan Heath who, if this poem is anything to go by, you would probably fall in love with but certainly wouldn’t want anywhere near you if you were ill. She eventually left, and now, Elizabeth tells us:

Professional boredom has settled in
Again, and patients go home whole.

Or “Government Health Warning”, or “A Plea for Mercy”:

For all the poor little sods who shoot themselves off
in boarding schools and dormitories, jerking into sleep,
and all the prissy girls who ride their horses bareback
or wet their knickers and seats at noisy pop concerts …

Or “A Straw Mat”:

I am guilty, she said to me. I didn’t know what to say.
We are all guilty, I said, of something, if it’s only living
when turf rests heavy on all the people cut off in their prime,
or buying this old cardigan from Oxfam instead of doing
something real. She said, Like what? I didn’t know.
I saw my tears fall on the leper’s foot. What a nonsense.
Africa is thirsty for blood and yet more blood, and we
wander round the Oxfam shop …

With poems like this around, why would anybody not be reading, not be needing, contemporary poetry?

And “Consumers”, another of my very favourites – but you need to read the whole thing. (In fact, you need to read the whole book.)

Ask me if I ever liked
small talk, chit-chat,
the smell of a new car,
the fat freezers lingering
like overweight virgins
in shadowy garages.
I have to say no.

Ask me if I ever liked
the long silence, full
of thoughtful emptiness,
the bruised smell
of geranium leaves,
the thin edges of poverty
like sides to middle sheets,
thin and anorexic.
I have to say yes.

Standing in Trafalgar Square
I was pleased the skin-heads
ate our iron rations.
Shouting into the dark
I felt at home, the candles
in jam jars, the small group
of word-spinners
sheltering from rain,
not ashes.

Ask me if I ever think
the nuclear winter
will be like a giant freezer
full of damaged goodies.
Lord, Lord, I have to say yes.
After the feast of flesh
and red gravy,
there will be ice cream
for afters, and then,
we shall wish we’d said no.
Lord, Lord, I tried to say no.

Do people need poems like this? I have to say yes.

Elizabeth Bartlett



A Glance at TWO WOMEN DANCING by Elizabeth Bartlett

I posted this five years ago but am reposting it now because it gives in a nutshell something of my approach to poetry – and poets!


I jotted down these thoughts last year while reading this wonderful collection of poems, then put it aside and … came across it again the other day. They don’t constitute a review as such but they are perhaps worth posting.

Two Wmen Dancing cover

“I like a man with poetry in him, but not a poet,” remarked Marilyn Monroe.

Is it perhaps, then, not the poetry – or poetry as such – but the poets?

Wendy Cope – like Elizabeth Bartlett, another very observant and sensistive modern poet herself – seems to thinks so.

I used to think all poets were Byronic –
Mad, bad and dangerous to know.
And then I met a few. Yes, it’s ironic –
I used to think all poets were Byronic.
They’re mostly wicked as a ginless tonic
And wild as pension plans.

Why would Marilyn Monroe and Wendy Cope say things like that? But notice the adjective Byronic. It wasn’t people like Byron, and Chaucer and Shakespeare, Donne and Blake and Shelley, Browning and Tennyson, who gave poets a bad name. Or Robert Graves or George Barker or Peter Porter. Or Auden, who was gay but had balls. (Those of you who don’t read poetry often or much may recall Switch Off All the Lights in the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.) Or Eliot, who wore a veneer of respectability that could fool all except those who read and love real poetry, yet beneath the surface was seething with the mad, bad and wild. “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.”

Real poetry. So perhaps after all, it is not just the poets but the poetry. Let me be honest. If a poem neither moves nor amuses me – nor even shock or arouses me – what use have I for it? Yawn, yawn – well-crafted – yawn, yawn – lovely alliteration – yawn, yawn – original rhyme scheme – yawn, yawn, yawn, zzzzz …

“A poet looks at the world the way a man looks at a woman.” Only a eunuch would look at a woman the way many modern poets look at the world!

Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a woman looks at a man.

No. Come on, Kanti. I’m writing these notes sitting outside a café in Paris – it’s October, and the weather is perfect – and every single male head, young or old, alone or in company, turns to watch every single remotely nubile female body walk past. It’s “a man thing”. Try again.

Elizabeth Bartlett looks at the world the way a real woman looks at the world: amused, aroused, awed, sympathetic, sometimes censorious, sometimes shocked, but always human. Passionately so. And never, ever boring. Apart from Bernardine Evaristo’s The Emperor’s Babe (which I must review!) this is the only book of poetry I have ever read on and on into the night and the following day, unable not to turn the page.

Elizabeth Bartlett
Elizabeth Bartlett

I challenge you to yawn while you are reading these poems!


I’ll write a better introduction to this wonderful collection of poems in another post next week.

Kathleen Raine’s THE ORACLE IN THE HEART (Review)


The opening line of this collection, “I who am what the dead have made“, leads us straight into the mood of the poet during the years when these poems were written (1975-78) as she was approaching her seventieth birthday. She sees herself as a word (“I myself the spoken word”, “Voices of wind and water / Have uttered us from the beginning“), an utterance of the past, of her ancestors, of the land they lived in (Scotland and Cumbria). Something it seems she turned her back on to a large extent, but now returns to.

What did I hope to find when I turned away from her …?‘ [her mother] she asks in one poem, and in another “Do I return / To the presence of the garden / The same, or not the same?”

And what did she find, what did she go through, while she was away? Is this it, in a poem called Christmas Children? “Little children running / Each in a paradise” among “London’s many-coloured fairy lights” and “Tangerines, sugar-mice, a star, / Here and now boundless / Their merriment.” But, she finishes, “the dark hells walk past them unseen.” Was that it? No, though it was there, as it is for all of us. For in other poems we find “yet this world, / Dark to the gods, how bright a paradise / When the heart loves …”

Another poem begins “Paris it was called ...”, was, not is, for to travel to this Paris she would need a time-machine.

Kathleen was above all a mystic. I will call her Kathleen here, for I called her Kathleen when we spent hours discussing Blake’s poetry and Blake’s form of mysticism. (And what I have in my hands is a signed copy of this book that I am reviewing now, years later.) Kathleen was a mystic and the great poems and prose of her middle years all give expression to this (or attempt to, for, like all true mystics, she knew it to be ultimately inexpressable), and here too we have lines such as this (from In My Seventieth Year):

It is enough, now I am old,
That everywhere, above, beneath,
About, within me, is the one
Presence, more intimate and near
Than mothering hands or love’s embrace

And since the utterance of the one
Majestic voice raised me to life
I am the part that I must play,
I am the journey I must go …

Which brings us back to where I began this review. At the end of the book is a small section of Short Poems, which is where you will find these gems.

“Ah, many, many are the dead
Who hold this pen and with my fingers write:
What am I but their memory
Whose afterlife I live, who haunt
My waking and my sleep with the untold?”

“I could have told much by the way
But having reached this quiet place can say
Only that old joy and pain mean less
Than these green garden buds
The wind stirs gently.”

“Young or old
What was I but the story told
By an unageing one?”

Perfect. Her name, and some at least of these poems, should be on everyone’s lips.

Dorothy Nimmo’s “THE WIGBOX: New and Selected Poems” (Review)

When I first came across Dorothy Nimmo, I thought she was like Sylvia Platt – only more so.
Mother has made you a house to live in
and she’ll make sure you live in it.
Mother has made you a bed to lie on,
she’ll cut bits off you if they don’t fit.

The obsession with pleasing – and being unable to please – her parents. The ever-present temptation to suicide.
Lying in the warm soapy water I do not
slit my wrists. I take only one sleeping pill.

The feeling that she shouldn’t be here at all – that it’s the wrong part in the wrong play:
This is the dressing-room I know is mine,
when they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
For God’s sake tell me, what’s the opening line?
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?

When they begin I’ll recognise my cue.
You’re on! they whisper and I face the light.
Who am I? What am I supposed to do?
Forgive me, mother. Have I got that right?

My voice is strangled. I’m awake. I shout
I know there’s something I must do today
and I can’t do it. You must write me out.
It’s not my part and this is not my play.

But see the whole of this wonderful poem – “Dream Play

She had been an actress, spent ten years on the stage. Now as a poet and person she was not even one of the audience. She was outside the theatre in the dark, peering in through a window.

I was getting smaller and smaller
I went up the track on all fours
my petticoats torn off by the brambles
my hands bleeding.
(from “Pretend Games”)

The true outsider.

But if you turn out to be left-handed, if you suspect your name
may not be your real name,

if you can hear the cry of bats, if you can dowse
for water, if your dreams belong to somebody else,

if when you stand at the tide’s edge looking out to sea
you hear them calling to you, then you must come to me.

Put your hand in mine. I’ll say
It’s all right. it’s possible. We go this way.
(from “A Birthday Present for Roger John”)

So go as the sun goes, wise daughter, go clockwise;
wrong way round the church is another kingdom, the price
of walking alone is a sword-blade slashing the instep.
(from “Message for a Daughter”)

I keep my mouth shut so they do not see my teeth.
Tiny, malevolent, I could be rat or weasel.
They should hang me up on the fence as a warning.
(from “Animal Kingdom“)

In a harshly realistic landscape, we meet Boys and Girls:

The boys have big bikes now. Their helmets hide
their private faces. They bomb up the lane.

The girls go soft with love, all dressed in white.
Their mothers think this is their proudest day.

The boys meet brick walls head on. And they might
pull through. Or not. They go the bravest way.

The girls meet life head on and they survive
to watch their children going out to play.

Whichever way they go they go away.
(from “The Boys and Girls are Going Out to Play”)

We meet a “Nanny”:

They find me in the conservatory full of dead
geraniums, light striking on all sides. I loved them
well enough, James, Nell, Blossom, but they greet me
as a stranger and politely put me away.

We meet “Two Men and a Pig”:

I am wearing wellies, working trousers,
jacket, cap. Matthew is wearing boots,
waistcoat, no jacket. Pig is naked.

And we meet her, a woman, a sex object:

He never could stand the sight of blood.
I learned to keep my skin unblemished,
my stomach flat, breasts firm, joints supple.
There would be no blood, I promised.

He himself devised this thick dark hair,
these long legs, these slender ankles hung
with silver bells that sing as my feet shift.

I wear his scarlet robe though red is
not my colour. I paint my nipples, dance
myself into the ground.
(from “Jumping Off”)

When she speaks of herself, sometimes she is ‘I’ and sometimes ’she’.
Sometimes I call her ‘she’. I give her another name and call her ‘she’ which is fair enough because she did have another name. But those were my eyes through which she looked, those were my children she cared for.”
He gives her a basket of strawberries.
“Open Wide!” he says, gently. She opens.
(from “Good Gifts“)

And then there are the poems about the man who leaves, walks out – again some ‘I’, some ’she’. First, before – when – he leaves:

I’m going to have to leave you, he said,
very politely. Sorry.

I stood up to riddle the Aga,
to draw the red curtains I’d bought
ready-made, marked down, to put out
the cat and I said, Oh really? When
were you thinking of going?

As if I might offer to take him
to the station. As if I didn’t want
to make him angry in case he left me.
(from “Ill-Wishing Him”)

Then after he leaves:

There is so little left. The room is bare.
She’ll strip his sheets and blankets by and by –
only this morning he was lying there.
The light is pouring from a hard white sky.

She’ll write to him, perhaps he will reply?
He’s better off, she knows, God knows, elsewhere.
She’ll be all right she told him cheerfully.
There is so little left. Thew room is bare.
(from “Rondeau Redouble”)

And then,

when I see his writing on an envelope I think,
Oh yes! That was the man I married. I live
so easily without him now that I forget him
for months at a time. Until perhaps some man says
Let me help you.

And I knock his teeth out.

He mops up the blood, bewildered, and I apologise:
I’m so sorry. I just couldn’t hear you for the echoes.
(from “Years Later”)

Dorothy Nimmo died on 24th May, 2001.

She wrote:
Because I wasted my time,
time has run out.

Oh, no. I do not accept that. She did not waste time. Time wasted her. Time does not pass: we pass – through time. Nor does time run out: we run out of time. Time wasted her as bright sunshine might waste us while we walk through it, or an icy gale.

She was published by small poetry publishers and in magazines, which I hope brought her some small pleasure, some satisfaction; it brought her some praise, but no more than most such minor poets receive as a matter of course, and less than many, though in fact her work, while superficially comparable with that of many other women writers of the late 20th century, actually places her among the greats such as Emily Bronte, Emily Dickinson and Sylvia Platt – women and outsiders (an inflammable combination!) who poured out their hearts in immortal verse.

THE NEW BRIDE by Catherine Smith (Review)

Catherine SmithA chapbook which was published in 2001 but only just came my way, the work of a true poet in the line of Sylvia Platt, Elizabeth Bartlett and Dorothy Nimmo.

It opens with the title poem, The New Bride, and from the first lines you are grabbed (and you stay grabbed till you finish the 23 pages of poetry that make up this little book). I don’t think either Catherine Smith or her publishers (The Poetry Business) will mind me quoting it here in full. It is, quite simply, perfect.

Dying, darling, is the easy bit. Fifty paracetamol,
bride-white and sticking in the throat, ten shots
of Johnny Walker, and the deed is done.
A twilight day of drowsing, then the breathing
slows to a whisper, like a sinner in Confession.

Death is dead easy. No, what happens next
is the difficulty. You bastard, howlng in public,
snivelling over photos, ringing round for consolation.
And you have me burnt, like a dinner gone wrong,
you keep the charred remains of me on show

at the Wake, inviting everyone I hate. Oh God,
they come in packs, sleek as rats with platitudes
and an eye on my half of the bed, hoping to find
leftover skin, a hint of fetid breath. I leave them
no hairs on the pillow. There are none to leave. 

And a year to the day since I shrug off the yoke
of life, you meet the new bride. In group therapy.
You head straight for a weeper and wailer,
telling strangers all her little tragedies. You love
the way she languishes, her tears sliming your neck,

you give in to her on vile pink Austrian blinds.
The Wedding is a riot of white nylon. Everybody
drinks your health and hers, the simpering bitch.
She and Della Smith keep you fat and happy
as a pig in shit. I want her cells to go berserk. 

Some nights I slip between you. The new bride
sleeps buttoned up, slug-smug in polyester. You,
my faithless husband, turn over in your dreams,
and I’m there, ice-cold and seeking out your eyes
and for a moment you brush my lips, and freeze.

Wow. Hard to follow that, but there are several other poems in this collection that you’ll want to re-read, and read again later because they are impossible to forget. Like Waiting for the Foot Binder (“The last evening with toes …”) and The Real McCoy, a vampire poem, (“At night I head for the bar with no mirrors and wait …”) and Picture This (“Grandad’s shirt sleeves applauding themselves on the line …”)

Actually, she is rather into clothes lines: in Uncle Aubrey

Uncle Aubrey is dying. On the line
pummelled by sheet-steel winds
night-clothes bluster and bulge.

This poem finishes (I can’t help quoting it!)

He is dying in Welsh. It is part of me
singing somewhere in my blood
voices of sickness and rain.

Voices of sickness and rain” – that is Wales in five words, at least the Wales I once came to know.

In Formica, she sits in a café “between coaches” and reads, carved into the formica table-top, the words “Jason fucked Gemma“. Then pictures it happening, there, across that table, and afterwards Jason taking out his penknife and carving while Gemma stands in the drizzle outside “waiting for the Manchester bus“.

And then there’s Stornoway Harbour, where “On the quay, mackerel convulse in buckets, / grinning like madmen …”

If you can find a copy of this collection, grab it. If not, see what Catherine Smith has been doing since 2001. I just have – here is her website:

A SEASONING OF LUST by Jane Kohut-Bartels (Review)

Seasoning of Lust coverA little book of erotica that came my way, left behind by a visitor actually, and though I try to return books lent to me I don’t feel I need to return this little gem to him. In fact he may have left it on my bedside table intentionally: there are things in here that every woman should ponder, and, if the cap fits (so to speak) take to heart;  and things that any man with imagination will thrill to.

It is a book of “very short stories” and “very short poems”, miniature masterpieces, many of them set in the world of the professionally beautiful and submissive geisha, a work of art in herself, there only to give pleasure.

Not a world we know, most of us, here in the West, though I have had some experience (some experiences) of it – that world, the East – on my travels and during my stays in India and Burma (yes, I know, Myanmar) and Thailand. But I have never been to China or Japan, and now perhaps never will. Being one for Tibet and for freedom I have no wish to visit imperialist China, and the Japanese men I have known have put me right off working there.

However, if anyone could make me change my mind, it would be Jane. I love nearly everything in this book.

Among my favourites are the 200-odd-word story Bad Karma.

“Who is coming?” she said as Midori painted her eyebrows high on her forehead.
“So sorry, but it’s Tanaka-san today.”
Bao’s eyes widened. “Aiiieee! He likes things pushed in odd places!”
“Just do as he wants. We’ll have rice balls later.”
Tanaka-san’s karma was to be short-shafted and have peculiar desires. Bao mourned her own karma.

And Ali Baba And His Four Thieves, where we get something different: belly-dancing. Jane is a belly-dancer (another thing we share) and the belly-dancer here is a silly western girl who is asking for it, and gets it. I found that of all the girls in the book, I couldn’t help identifying most fully with her! (Very embarrassing, but I’m being honest.)

Then there is the Shibari series of thirteen exquisite miniatures. “Shibari”? Synonymous with “Kinbaku-bi”, which apparently means ‘the beauty of tight binding’. (Was this why he left it by my bed?)

And the Haiku. Listen to this:

The glance at a wrist
White, the pulse of a river
Tiny beat of life

And the Tankas:

The morning wren sings,
I stand in the moonlit dawn
kimono wrapped tight.
Last night I made my peace
now free from all attachments.

The collection finishes with three slightly longer stories, two, both unforgettable, set in France, and the third – my favourite, because so original, so surprising – set in Venice. It is called La Vendetta and tells of the spoilt Signora Maria de Guiseppa Agnesi Faini; her husband, Signor Faini; her lover, Alfredo, “an officer, a dashing lieutenant, now on maneuvers somewhere across the Alps”; and her “friend” – Signor Alessandro Balsamo was her friend. Actually he was her cisebo, tolerated by her husband because Signor Balsamo was a castrato. He had been cut when only a young boy (“Viva il coltello![Long live the knife!] the audience yelled when he appeared on the stage) and sang until his voice disappeared.

But now the castrato is growing old and can be treated with contempt. … Or can he?

To be dipped into, then, rather than read straight through. You’ll love it too, I’m sure.

BETWEEN THE CRACKUPS by Rebecca Lehmann (Review)

The poem that opens this collection, “A Hundred Words For Loser”, ensures that we are under no illusion regarding the poets’ unpoetic take on the sacrosanct – or indeed on anything else.

… A man
tells a bible story about a town filled
with prostitutes and a father who sleeps
with his two daughters.

Then we have “Letters To A Shithead Friend”. Some of these poems are so far from traditional poetry and so far too from from the poetasting “poems” of the incestuous “poets” writing only for each other in many of the little magazines that fill the shelves of university libraries, that they might once again, like the poets of the past, appeal to the masses if the masses would only read them.

Take “The Youngest Girls In Memphis” for example, which finishes:

… We never expect them
to erupt like angered volcanoes,
their vomit and loose teeth pooling
on our tabletops. This is a surprise
every time; this is the event horizon.

Or “The Factory, An Elegy In Six Parts”, which begins:

The managers are giving silver dollars to our children,
are telling them that if they are good, they can have our jobs
once we have died.

Or “Think Georgia, Gorgeous” (I am drawing attention to some of the ones I liked best):

We take our bearings from the headlights
flashing through the guardrails. Nashville,
and a billboard reads, Good little tits!

Or “Dear Cousin” which finishes:

Morning has broken is a hymnal line that means
two or more things. I realize this as I’m singing it,
the wafer crumbs still stuck inside my mouth.

Some of the poems paint a surrealistic picture, successfully – not so easy for a poet, who risks becoming ridiculous. This is “Particulate Matter IV”:

A man in a field holds a folding chair.
His hair is made of light.
I realize I’m naked. He unfolds the chair and
sits down. When he opens his mouth
horse flies fall out like a cataract.

They form the shape of a word: HEY

Rebecca Lehmann is an academic, and I have to say that for the most part, perhaps surprisingly this does not show in her writing (I mean it does not mar it), but occasionally she cannot help the self-conscious aside like this one which, in my view, spoils what had been up to that point an excellent poem.

Forgive the intrusion of a metaphor; I’ve been away a long time.

And then there are the memories of schooldays which always seem to pepper the conversation of (young) American women. She is very American, and here agonising over them seems only to add authenticity. For instance:

like the grown man who apologized for calling
me a finger-fuck slut when we were both thirteen

And :

The boy who moved to my town from California in sixth grade
made me a pair of earrings out of fishing wire and beads.
I threw them in the school trashcan at the end of the day,
and then years later felt horrible about it.

Is this nature, or is it artifice, I wonder.

And then, oddly, there is a series of references to bruises on her legs. I find this intriguing, and wonder once again if it is nature or artifice.

I had my legs open […]
I never told anyone the bruise you made


… the bruise
on the leg like an angered owl


The diagonal line of bruises on the back
of my left thigh reveals my humanity.


The bruises on my legs, desire them.

Let me just say that this is a collection that improves with a second reading. (You would never notice those bruises first time round.) Perhaps she no longer shocks, but you begin to pick out the gems among the poems and mark the ones you want to read a third and fourth time. And perhaps add to your own private collection of art trouvée. Like the absolutely original poem entitled “Pasture”: I would need to quote the whole thing. You must buy the book and read it for yourself.